A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In 1928, when I was three, there was a huge flood in London and I remember looking out of the window and seeing boats sailing down the street in front of our house [40 Grosvenor Road, now the site of the Millbank Tower], which became completely flooded in the basement… When the mess in the basement was being cleared up, we discovered that a suitcase full of Sidney Webb’s underwear had floated in from next door. I suppose that entitles me to claim that my political roots were based in Fabianism. (Chapter Three, Life at Home, p. 71)
Early-life memoir is a very serious business. Memories are raked over; grudges are reanimated; positions are defended, and the roots of conviction sought. Nothing is without significance. Above all, nothing is childish, in the best sense of the word. The dignity of the narrator is generally too high to allow for silliness.
Dare to be a Daniel is another matter. It is a reflection in three parts, beginning with Faith and ending with Socialism. Sandwiched between them is a brief history of Tony Benn, from ancestors to early marriage, and it is fabulous: chaotic, opinionated and frequently, brilliantly, silly. Serious thoughts about co-education, Clause Four and Congregationalism mix with school stories, scouting adventures and wholesale reproductions of Benn family jokes (some of them illustrated). It is plain-spoken, witty and wry and wonderful. It is pure essence of Benn, and for those who miss him there is no better thing.
I am afraid this is a very short review, because it is hard to write (and because I don’t want to tell you too much and ruin all the best bits). If you know my posting history here, you’ll know I make a habit of writing Very Serious Things about political memoir, and am often Terribly Conflicted about the author. I was not conflicted about Tony Benn: like so many others, I loved him and relied on him to be there, speaking calm, quiet sense, when all else was going horribly wrong. The loss of him is still too raw to allow for any degree of detachment. And so I’ll leave you here, with one of the lines that broke through my sadness and made me laugh. From his experiences as a fifteen-year-old ARP volunteer in Oban:
A Warden’s Report Form from October that year, in my writing, describes: ‘House collapsed and FIRE spreading, THREE German aircraft seen, SIX of ours in pursuit. RAF Motorboats in attendance. Warden SMITH slightly wounded,’ which must have been a practice report, as there were no raids as far as I remember. (Chapter 7, The Outbreak of War, p. 126)
Arrow, ISBN: 978-0099471530, 288 pp. Also available for e-reader via Cornerstone Digital.